The Founding Fathers got a lot wrong in their vision of how we would elect presidents. Political parties formed and are not going away. As a result, electors are selected by parties and campaigns based on their reliability, not their judgment. Where they are not selected on that basis, as in the case of the 2016 Democratic electors from the state of Washington, the result is chaotic.
The faithless electors last year did not try to elect some leader of national prestige, nor did they try to follow the voters’ wishes. They tried to make a point. They threw a tantrum. In a system dominated by political parties, the best elector is one who has no judgment, only obedience.
But this does not negate the purpose of the Electoral College. In a pure popular vote system, it is easy to imagine the exact sort of chaos they feared. Look, for example, at the Republican primaries last year, in which 17 candidates ran. In a field that large, a candidate could easily win a plurality based on pre-existing fame and incendiary rhetoric. In fact, one did. Trump’s nomination was unchained democracy at work.
In a popular vote system, why would 17 candidates not also run for the White House? Now, third-party candidates have little chance because of the Electoral College. The last serious one, Ross Perot, polled 18.9 percent of the vote in 1992—and zero electoral votes. Under a system in which the Electoral College was no barrier, how many more votes would he have gained? And how many more would Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, or any even more credible candidate have received in 2016? It is easy to see how a popular vote system could result in a president being elected with 30 percent of the vote.